This new book from Baptist theologian Curtis Freeman emerged from an unplanned visit in 2005 to Bunhill Fields in London, where he discovered the graves of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake (amongst other nonconformists). These three are centrally placed in the courtyard and Freeman began to wonder why these three. The book then offers an exploration into each of their lives and their respected great works - Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe and Jerusalem. In this way Freeman tells a story of dissent and the dissenting church in England, which spread to new shores, partly through the works of Bunyan, Defoe and Blake. Freeman is a great story-teller, already evidenced in his earlier work Contesting Catholicity, and Undomesticated Dissent continues to invite the reader into the world of its subjects. In this way Freeman follows the example of his mentor Jim McClendon (and most notably his work Biography as Theology), to whom Freeman dedicates this book in 'blessed memory'.
Dissent, says Freeman, is not just the 'courage to say No!', it is also 'grounded in a profound 'Yes!' to Jesus Christ (p.5), and it is both this yes and no that saw other Christians and the state seek to domesticate those who were dissenters. Freeman explores how, in different ways, Bunyan, Defoe, and Blake each sought to resist the domestication placed upon them and their communities. Here I must also note the detail in Freeman's story telling which is amazing. Reading the footnotes sees Freeman has found a vast range of sources to tell his story. From his readings of Progress, Crusoe and Jerusalem, Freeman goes on to tell the story of their reception history, which again, in different ways, sought to domesticate the account of dissent in each of the works. Bunyan's Progress was turned into a generalised evangelical account of conversion, translated globally by missionaries, and so something of the social context of the work was lost, although, even here Freeman suggests that some readers caught the theme of dissent. Defoe's Crusoe became a manual for growing up and even something of a capitalist tract! The religious dissent within the book again overlooked, but it remained an inspiring text for the likes of Carey and other global missionaries and it remains an example of the difficulties of dissent once persecution gets (partially) lifted. Blake's Jerusalem (the long poem often confused with the short poem that prefaced Blake's Milton. The latter which became the famous nationalistic hymn) is an apocalyptic vision that challenged both church and state of the day, it is the most powerfully undomesticated in its dissent.
Freeman's final chapter explores how dissent has continued through the likes of Roger Williams, Martin Luther King, Clarence Jordan and Wendell Berry, before offering some reflections that Baptists and others might make in recovering an undomesticated dissent in their own time. All the more pressing in the context of Trump and the responses of those like Rod Dreher's Benedict Option. This makes Freeman's book especially timely.The story of dissent in each case is apocalyptic and here Freeman makes some connections with the interest in apocalyptic readings of Paul and the New Testament. There seems potentially a further fruitful dialogue here to be had. He argues their is no blueprint for dissent, only the examples of other those stories he has told (and others), from which he says conviction, conscience and community are important.
Baptists have largely lost the language and the practice of dissent. Our dissent - if any remains - has become domesticated. Christian faith and witness is private rather than public, it has largely coalesced with capitalism and is decidedly un-apocalyptic. Here attention to the tradition of Bunyan, Defoe and Blake becomes potentially vital to a declining church, if it is to recover the gospel of Jesus Christ that gave life to its forebears, and it is to continue, thorough God's grace to survive and flourish. And following the argument of Freeman's Contesting Catholicity, this tradition of dissent, suggests Freeman, might be one of the gifts Baptists and other nonconformists have to offer the wider church.
With this new book, Freeman sits as one of the most important Baptist voices (at least for the Western world) at present. Baptists worldwide would benefit of reading Freeman's Contesting Catholicity and Undomesticated Dissent together. They offer a compelling Baptist vision, rooted in our tradition, and compelling for our present. We can but hope that Freeman continues to write and offer his insights, retrieved from our past, for a church that is convicted by apocalyptic good news of Jesus Christ. Likewise, others beyond the Baptist (and even Christian) fold, will find in Freeman someone who tells the story of a largely overlooked people called Baptists, have much to challenge and encourage the wider church and world.
You can find a copy of this short article in the latest Baptist Minister's Journal (July 2017). Permission kindly given to reprint here.
SCM Press recently hosted an event asking the question ‘Does the church really need Academic Theology?’ I wonder what a survey of our churches and Union might reveal.[i] I’m not sure the answer would be a positive one. There is probably still a suspicion of academic theology or sometimes what appears to be an indifference to it. Baptists are generally a pragmatic bunch, we don’t go much in for theological debate.
Back in 1981 a small group of then younger Baptist theologians wrote A Call to Mind.[ii] They believed that with all the excitement then about church growth theory and the charismatic movement, there was also a need to think, to engage in the task of theology, not in the abstract, but for the church: for its faithfulness in a changing world, for its confidence in the gospel it proclaimed, and for its wisdom before the questions of the day. It seems to me that 35 years on, more than ever, we need a theological renewal within our Baptist life and mission.
The last ten years have seen numerous calls to prayer and to mission, but no one has ever thought to call to us to deeper theological reflection.
This is why it’s exciting to see the emergence of events like TINY (Theology in Yorkshire), the Bloomsbury Theological Reflection Days (which I’ve been involved in setting up in London, still in its infancy) and the BMS led Catalyst Live days. Simon Woodman and myself are also hosting a day we’re calling Theology Live in December, which will see a number of Baptist scholars and theologians come and share their research. This is why its exciting to see those in local pastorate engaged in on going research, like Tim Carter, who has recently published a new book on The Forgiveness of Sins.[iii] As we continue to grapple with the current presenting issues of pension deficits, disagreement over same sex marriage, and what it is to be a Union of churches in these days, (and this is to say nothing of the current political, ethical, economic quandaries we inhabit,) I suggest we need a new turn to theological reflection, a new engagement of the mind, that goes beyond sharing a Bible verse.
Take for example same sex marriage. Our conversations thus far have centred around a fairly simple reading of the Biblical texts and I’m not convinced with enough attention to the hermeneutical questions involved. But beyond what we think the Bible says, is the mountain of theological and pastoral work around these questions from both those who affirm and non-affirm. A real theological engagement would take seriously the work of Rowan Williams, Eugene Rogers, Robert Song, Christopher Roberts, Wesley Hill, Oliver O’Donovan, Megan DeFranza and Sarah Coakley, and these names are just a small selection of the serious theological work being done across the spectrum of views. This kind of reading and thinking might make our different positions clearer, but at the very least, it would help us understand how and why others think and believe different from ourselves. This might help with ‘our tone and culture’ (to borrow two words that were used recently within the Church of England), both within our conversations and those who might overhear them.
We need Pastor Theologians (Kevin Vanhoozer gives a whopping 55 Theses on why). We need to do all we can to encourage theological development, not just amongst ministers, but within the whole body of the church. I still remember a minister in the year above me at college who at the end of his training, ended up giving away a load of his books – saying in all but word: who needs any more of this theology stuff! It reminds me of the Stanley Hauerwas anecdote about how no student training to become a doctor gets a choice about having to do anatomy, but too many ministerial students can opt for counselling over Christology![v] Christian ministry is more than a caring profession. Another Hauerwas andecote is his response to a sermon preached to those completing their ministerial training. The preacher said, ‘They do not care what you know. They want to know you care.’ To which Hauerwas writes, ‘Though I am a pacifist I wanted to kill her on the spot.’[vi] We need to encourage Associations to appoint Pastor-Theologians as Regional Ministers,[vii] those who can model, encourage, and help form not just missional communities, but theological ones. We need to create a culture of publication and making research more widely available. Our colleges are full of essays and dissertations gathering dust – the best of these we should encourage to be made more widely available for the good of the church. We need to value more highly Baptist publications like the Baptist Quarterly (£26 a year), the Baptist Minister’s Journal (£20 a year), Regent’s Reviews (free to download). We need to invest more in our Colleges and their research Centres – the Centre for Baptist History and Heritage and the Centre for Christianity and Culture (both at Regent’s Park College, Oxford), the Centre for Anabaptist Studies, the Centre for Family and Childhood Studies, the Centre for Urban Life (all at Bristol Baptist College), the Centre for Spirituality (at Spurgeon’s College, London) and the new Centre for Theology and Justice (at Northern Baptist College).
What might be the implications of a new call to mind? At the local level it might be churches setting up reading groups or ministers tackling theologically the contemporary issues of the day.[viii] At an association level it might be fostering theological reflection groups like TINY. We have people in our Associations overseeing mission resources, mission strategy, finance, children, etc, perhaps we could appoint someone to encourage theology? At a Union level, we might recover the value again of something like the Doctrine and Worship Committee, which brought together some of our best theologians to do some work on our behalf. We might, like the Church of England, explore appointing a ‘Mission Theologian’ in partnership with BMS. This would reflect a new appreciation for those with theological gifts, as well as, ensuring that we were taking the work of theology seriously in all the difficult questions and issues we are confronting today.[ix]
The ‘Introduction’ to A Call To Mind ends with these words:
‘What we plead for is a far greater openness to theological exploration and discussion in our denomination. We repeat, it is no answer to say we need less theology and more commitment or more activity. The implicit theology in much of what we do needs to be examined and aired in the light of the greater and more exciting horizons that await us.’[x]
To which I say Yes and Amen.
[i] I think it is also right to ask ‘does academic theology need the church?’ to which I would say absolutely. Steve Holmes remarks how Colin Gunton, Professor of Systematic Theology at King’s College, would say ‘You can always tell when a theologian has stopped preaching; their work loses something vital.’
[ii] That group of younger Baptist theologians were Paul Fiddes, Brian Haymes, Richard Kidd, Keith Clements and Roger Hayden.
[iii] Other examples are ministers who are scholars in pastorate are Edward Pillar, Simon Woodman, Ruth Gouldbourne, Robert Parkinson, Rosa Hunt, Ian Stackhouse and Paul Goodliff.
[v] Hauerwas gives this anecdote in several places in his work.
[vi] Hauerwas, The Work of Theology (Eerdmans, 2013), 105.
[vii] This was the argument of the 1996 Baptist Union report Transforming Superintendency.
[viii] For one example of what this might look like see Sam Wells, How Then Shall We Live? Christian Engagement with Contemporary Issues (Canterbury, 2016).
[ix] I don’t suggest that such a person or any new Doctrine committee would me an abdication for the rest of us from the task of theological reflection, but that such a person or group might act like those on a ship who act as lookouts, asking do you see what I/we see.
[x] A Call to Mind: Baptist Essays Towards a Theology of Commitment (Baptist Union, 1981), p.8.
Really pleased to announce that Gathering Disciples: Essays in Honor of Christopher J. Ellis is now published. It's actually been out for the last month, but have had to keep quiet about it, until today, for this evening we have presented Chris with a copy of the book. This is my first proper book, edited with Myra Blyth (Chaplain and Tutor in Worship at Regent's Park College, Oxford). It offers a set of essays that celebrate the contribution Chris has made to Baptist life. On its own, I think, it also offers a fantastic set of essays on Baptist theology and practice. The book is set around a selection of Chris' hymns, each chapter begins with a hymn, which sets the topic and engagement of the essay that follows. Hopefully it will see Chris' hymns find their way into worship services.
The contributors are a mix of colleagues, peers and familyl, as well as, some new younger theologians.
Please feel free to purchase a copy!
Foreword by Neville Callam
1 “Help Us to Search for Truth”: Baptists and Doing Theology —Robert Ellis
2 “The Lord Is Here”: How Worship Confronts the Powers —Craig Gardiner
3 “God of Love We Praise You”: Baptist Worship and Congregational Song —Shona Shaw
4 “In Obedient Living Find Your Home”: Reflections on Baptists and Discipleship —Paul Goodliff
5 “Your Will Be Always Done”: Congregational Discernment as Contextual Discipleship —Stuart Blythe
6 “Seeing Ourselves We Could Be”: Baptist Interpretations of Scripture on the Complementarity of Male and Female —Beth Allison-Glenny
7 “The Water Buries Like a Tomb”: Baptists and Baptism —Sally Nelson
8 “A Sign of Unity”: The Changing Theology and Practice of Lord’s Supper amongst British Baptists —Myra Blyth
9 “To Become the Future Now”: Baptists Being Shaped by the Table —Ashley Lovett
10 “We are Gathered with the Millions”: Celebrating the Communion of Saints —Ruth Gouldbourne
11 “We Need Each Other”: The Ecumenical Engagement of European Baptists —Tony Peck
12 “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”: The Triune Creator in Hymn and Theology —Paul S. Fiddes
13 “The Ground on Which we Dare to Build”: Putting Calvinism to Work —Nigel G. Wright
14 “Missionary God”: The Place of Mission amongst British Baptists —Andy Goodliff
"Gathering Disciples is not only a well-deserved celebration of the contributions of Baptists' most significant liturgical theologian--it serves as a splendid showcase of the impressive theological work now being done by Baptist theologians in, with, and for their own tradition but also in, with, and for the whole church. An indispensable resource for the renewal of ecclesial life in Baptist and Free Church communities and for the ecumenical reception of the theological gifts these communities offer to the global church."
--Steven R. Harmon, Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity
"Christopher Ellis's theology provides the beautiful through-line for a collection of essays on worship, ecumenism, doctrine, and life that sings in a distinctive Baptist key. Gathering Disciples is a celebration of scholarship and a testament of love: one that deserves to be read by thoughtful Christians from every tradition."
--Melanie Ross, Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School
"In celebrating the work of Christopher Ellis, this collection offers a fascinating kaleidoscope of themes and thinkers in contemporary Baptist theology. More to that, however, it is a significant contribution to the wider conversations in Christian theology. Organized around the notion of 'sung theology,' this volume is a convincing illustration of the role of worship in both shaping and reflecting our faith."
--Lina Toth (Andronoviene), Scottish Baptist College
Extracts from Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists by Curtis Freeman (Baylor, 2014):
Other Baptists are sick, and they know it. This sickness is terminal, and it is shared by others. But there is good news; there is a cure. Other Baptists find the cure for their alterity by participating in the life of the triune God with the communion of saints in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. (p.23)
Other Baptists are committed to continuing reform and retrieving the tradition of the church.
Other Baptists have said farewell to the establishment of Christendom in search of a contesting catholicity.
Other Baptists long to see their churches take a new direction that is neither conservative nor liberal nor something in between.
Other Baptists affirm the beliefs and practices that have shaped the identity and mission of baptistic communities through the centuries, but they also desire to be in continuity with the historic Christian tradition.
Other Baptists seek to move beyond modernity, yet they are deliberate about retrieving a connection between faith and practice of the once, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Other Baptists do not claim to have the final word but rather invite the wider community of Baptists to enter a conversation about the way forward.
Other Baptists pursue the direction of a theology that is deliberately baptistic and intentionally catholic. (pp.91-92)
Other Baptists have been more open to the use of creeds when not employed to bind the conscience. By voluntarily reciting the ancient ecumenical creeds of the church, Other Baptists move beyond fundamentalism and liberalism and toward the bedrock of catholicity. (p.138)
Other Baptists seek the recovery of catholicity because there is nothing more qualitatively or quantitatively catholic than the Trinity. The choice is clear. (p.190)
For Other Baptist pilgrims, the journey is about practices, not just principles; convictions, not merely concepts; communion, not individualism. (p.209)
Other Baptists understand that they are priests to one another by participating as ministers in the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ, the mediator of the new covenant. (p.223)
Other Baptists believe that embracing a greater sense of catholicity offers hope of being sustained in the ecclesial pilgrimage through the wilderness of life after Christendom. (p.257)
Other Baptists must see to it that there is enough catholicity existing among them to be recognized by Christians within the wider church. (p.258)
Other Baptists can with expectant hope offer this prayer:
O Father, Son, and Spirit, send us increase from above;
Enlarge, expand all Christian souls to comprehend thy love;
and make us to go on to know with nobler powers conferred;
The Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word.
Other Baptists … [seek] to move from a theology of simple faith, private devotion, obligatory ordinance, real absence, and mere symbol to a theology of sacramental participation, common prayer, life-giving practice, real presence, and powerful signs. (p.338)
Other Baptists are prepared to see infant baptism as a form of baptism derived from the norm of believer’s baptism, while only practicing the normative form in their own communities. (p.373)
Other Baptists seek a way forward that enables their churches to “accept into full membership all confirmed Christians, who present themselves for membership, without requiring a second baptism. This is the constraint of catholicity and it is a constraint Other Baptists freely embrace. (p.383)
To their brothers and sisters in the wider church, Other Baptists can only attest that catholicity is not an option. It is the only reality. For either Baptists churches are expressions of the church catholic or they are not the church at all. (p.390)
This evening saw Regent's Park College honour Paul Fiddes with two festschrifts. Paul, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford - a title uniquely conferred on him in 2002 - and former Principal of Regent's Park College and current Director of Research, is the pre-eminent Baptist theologian at work in the world today. It was then more than fitting that the contribution he has made to the task of theology, both with academia and the church be recognised.
The evening was a planned surprise of which Paul had no prior knowledge - rarely do you see him stuck for words, but his speech in response was brief, demonstrating how touched he was by the presence of friends and colleagues and the two books. Jürgen Moltmann, who taught Paul for a year back in 1976, started the evening by giving a lecture on behalf of the Centre of Christianity and Culture based at Regent's (celebrating 20 years this year, having been birthed by Paul in the early 1990s). Moltmann named Paul as a 'radical Baptist.' The evening then continued to present Paul with the festschrifts, which included a speech from Rex Mason, former tutor in Old Testament at Regent's. He shared that he knew Paul as a child (Paul's grandparents being in the church where Rex was then minister).
The two festschrifts reflect Paul's contribution to academic theology and to Baptist church life. The first, Within the Love of God: Essays on the Doctrine of God in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes, is edited by Andrew Moore and Anthony Clarke (both former students and now current colleagues of Paul) and draws together an international line-up of theologians including Jürgen Moltmann, John Webster, Keith Ward, Paul Helm, Frances Young, David Burrell, Chris Rowland, John Barton and two other Baptist theologians in John Colwell and Stephen Holmes. The book engages in different ways with the doctrine of God, which has been a central focus of Paul's theology, especially in his first major book The Creative Suffering of God and the later Participating in God.
The second book, For the Sake of the Church: Essays in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes, edited by Anthony Clarke (again!) is a collection of essays by colleagues at Regent's Park - Rob Ellis, Nick Wood, Myra Blyth, Larry Kreizter and Deborah Rooke, Anthony Clarke, Tim Bradshaw - as well as other British Baptists scholars - Ruth Gouldbourne, Stephen Finamore, Nigel Wright, Richard Kidd, Brian Haymes, John Weaver and John Briggs. These essays mostly reflect and interact with Paul's contributions to Baptist theology and life, with regards to ecclesiology, the sacraments and ministry.
Both books are fitting tributes and offer some good critical engagement with Paul's theology. (Other future festschrifts might reflect Paul's contribution both to wider Baptist life and in the area of ecumenical conversations).
Paul has been in Oxford since the 1960s and at Regent's since the 1970s and so you could say it was long overdue to honour him in this way. Paul is the Baptist gift to wider theology - we have produced very few theologians of his stature. As Baptists, I'm not sure we will see another like him (partly because as a Baptist Union in Great Britain we don't invest and encourage people to take up the theological task like Paul has) and as Baptists, I'm not sure we've really fully appreciated and paid enough attention to his voice, but here's hoping these festschrifts will be one way to change that.
This is a very very good book and this is indicated by those who have commended it - Sarah Coakley, Ephraim Radner, Carl Braaten, David Tracy, Gerald O'Collins , Robert Louis Wilken and fellow Baptist, Paul Fiddes. This may well be one of the most important books written by a Baptist, both for its vision of Baptist life for Baptists and also for its vision of the church for those of other traditions.
The book tells something of Freeman's theological pilgrimage to becoming an 'Other Baptist.' The term 'Other Baptist' having its origins in being the only box Freeman felt he could tick in a list of various types of Baptist. There is something then of the confessional nature in the book. In Freeman's usage it describes a Baptist who is catholic, one who is seeking to chart a way beyond fundamentalism and liberalism. Freeman defines an Other Baptist as one in which there may well be:
frustration with both lukewarm liberalism and hyper fundamentalism; a desire to confess the faith once delivered to all the saints, not as a matter of coercion, but as a simple acknowledgement of where they stand and what they believe; a recognition of the Trinity as the centre of the life to which they are drawn; a longing to be priests to others in a culture of self-reliance; a hope of sharing life together that is not merely based on a common culture or determined by shared interests; a commitment to follow the teachings of the Bible that they understand and being open to receive more light and truth that they do not yet understand; trusting in God's promise of presence in water and table; a yearning for the fulfilment of the Lord's prayer that the church may be one.' (p.26)
The book demonstrates the influence of James McClendon and to lesser extent Stanley Hauerwas, both of whom have played very important roles in Freeman's journey to Other Baptist-ness. Another of reading the book is as one very long footnote to the "Manifesto" that Freeman, McClendon and others published in 1997, which was a cry for Baptists, particularly in North America, to a more radical way of being Baptist and catholic.
Contesting Catholicity comes in two parts. The first part sets out what Freeman understands as the 'sickness' in Baptist life. The sickness largely being an individualism, which has its roots in modernity, rather than Baptist beginnings, and is pervasive amongst Baptists, whether fundamentalist or liberalist. Freeman sees in postliberalism, and the work of Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, a faith that is best expressed as a 'generous orthodoxy' (Frei's phrase), which moves beyond the rigid positions of fundamentalism and liberalism.
The second part of the book explores what a theology for Other Baptists looks like in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, the doctrine of the church, the reading of the Bible, the Lord's Supper and the practice of baptism. Freeman demonstrates a real gift of narrating the way Baptists (in Western Christianity) have thought through and lived out their theology, moving freely across four hundred years of history. In this way Freeman follows his teacher McClendon in a way of doing theology that is embodied, not abstract, and that is rooted in local church communities. The voice that resounds throughout the book (one I had not come across before) is of a Baptist pastor and theologian named Carlyle Marney, active in the 1950s and 60s, who Freeman sees as articulating the basis and direction - a Baptist pilgrim road as it were - for Other Baptists. One of the things I most enjoyed about the book is the way Freeman does his theology largely through narrative (pointing to the influence of McClendon and Hauerwas).
Reading the book I found myself saying 'this is me'. I am an Other Baptist, or at least seeking to be. The book in many places was a means of confirmation rather than an initiation into a new way of being Baptist, but this may reflect that my reading habits in the last ten years have been from a similar shelf to Freeman - Hauerwas and Fiddes especially. If you're a signed up catholic Baptist, what there is to enjoy here is the clarity of the argument, the depth of the reading and analysis and done in a way that is particularly Baptist, but at every point with a catholic vision and intention. Freeman is writing theology for the whole church, not just the Baptist branch. Miroslav Volf's 1998 work After the Likeness put John Smyth (and Baptist theology) on the radar for a new audience, Freeman provides a form of sequel in which Smyth and those who have followed in his tracks are the central characters in 'a dissenting movement within the church catholic' (Fiddes).
The message to Baptists then is stop being anti-catholic whether aggressively or with indifference, because if we are not an expression of catholicity, then, if not going too far for Freeman, (and to borrow a phrase from Hauerwas), 'your salvation is in doubt.' The message to everyone else is you need to take us Baptists as offering a catholic tradition and vision that sits alongside others and so is contested. Freeman certainly provides a rich description of that catholic baptist tradition and vision and for that we must thank him.
I read this book over three nights, such was the pull of its narrative and its possibility of being an 'Other' Baptist, it now deserves to be read again, more slowly. I hope many others will do the same.
Good to see Wipf & Stock supporting British Baptist scholarship.
Over the last few months they have published
Anne Clements' PhD thesis: Mothers on the Margin? The Significance of the Women in Matthew’s Genealogy
Joshua Searle's PhD thesis: The Scarlet Woman and the Red Hand: Evangelical Apocalyptic Belief in the Northern Ireland Troubles (wins prize for best title!)
Peter Morden's PhD thesis (already published in the UK by the Centre for Baptist History and Heritage): Communion with Christ and His People: The Spirituality of C. H. Spurgeon
In addition, Ian Stackhouse (and Oliver Crisp) have edited Text Message: The Centrality of Scripture in Preaching.
It often feels that too many Baptists (in the UK only?) give short shrift to the work of theology. We know we probably need some, but definitely not too much. The Whitley Lecture is one small recognition that Baptists are doing theology. Although it was founded in 1949, during the 1980s (if not before) it fell by the wayside. It was recovered in 1996 as an annual public lecture given by a Baptist. And every year, apart from 2005, it has been delivered around the Baptist colleges and at the Baptist Assembly. Sadly, at an Assembly reduced to two days (and in following years to one day), there is no space for it to be heard.
This year it has been delivered at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London and, I'm pleased to say, to a small crowd today at Belle Vue Baptist Church, Southend.
Over the last eighteen years the Whitley Lecture has demonstrated that there are a few Baptists who have been encouraged to think theologically and at depth. Many of those who delivered it have been past recipients of a BU Scholarship to pursue doctoral research. It has also shown a wide range of topics and interests amongst Baptists. So the Lecture has covered issues of political theology, ministry, eucharistic theology, the place of children, violence, tradition, ecclesiology, worship, disability, medical ethics and interpreting the Bible.
Two of the most important Lectures in terms of helping local Baptist churches and their wider bodies, I think, have been on the matter of biblical interpretation. The first is Sean Winter's 2007 Lecture, 'More Light and Truth?: Biblical Interpretation in Covenantal Perspective' and the second is this year's lecture by Helen Dare, 'Always on the way and in the fray: Reading the Bible as Baptists.' Both lectures seek to explore in related ways the nature of how Baptist communities read the Bible together. Baptist communities are understood as those who have covenanted together before God and with one another, but who find when we pay attention to the diversity of voices amongst us, that there will be inevitable disagreement. Sean Winter reminds us that interpreting the Bible is always an ongoing exercise, that is, there is always more light and truth to be revealed. In her lecture, Helen Dare turns to Walter Brueggemann as a dialogue partner, whose work on the relationship between God and Israel is one that is richly helpful in terms of what it might mean to read Scripture in community.
Both works challenge Baptists to reflect on how the Bible is read within our churches, whether in terms of worship, study or church meeting. Both seek to show how our Bible reading is always 'on the way', its ongoing activity, because we are a community on our way, and 'in the fray', it is a passionate activity, because we are a community with convictions, which in some places can be deeply contested. Both seek to show how we read the Bible is a divine activity, it seeks the hear the Word in the text, but also a human one with all its ability to read coercively.
Both Winter and Dare (and the wider work within the volume edited by Dare and Woodman on Baptist hermeneutics), show the possibilities of a Baptist approach to reading scripture that takes God, the church and particular voices seriously, as we aim to be faithful to scripture and the call of Christ.
This year will see two major works of Baptist theology published by Baylor University Press
Contesting Catholicity by Curtis Freeman
Baptists and the Communion of Saints by Paul Fiddes, Brian Haymes and Richard Kidd
Also in the pipe line is a book of essays on the theology of Stanley Grenz edited by Jason Sexton, Derek Tidball and Brain Harris.